The Challange of Making Iraq and Afghanistan Battlefields "Green"

As U.S. forces have battled the insurgency in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan over the past half-decade, concerns over the wars' environmental impact haven't received as much attention as the strategic and political climates. This has lead to unsafe conditions affecting the health of U.S. troops, Iraqi civilians, and the environment around them. This is according to a new study by the RAND Corporation commissioned by the Army Environmental Policy Institute (AEPI) in a effort to identify deficiencies in the Army's handling of its environmental policy, and what effects these have had on the branch's missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. The report, Green Warriors: Army Environmental Considerations for Contingency Operations from Planning Through Post-Conflict, states that neglecting environmental considerations can impact not only human and environmental health, but success in counterinsurgency operations, diplomacy, and reconstruction efforts:

The report concludes that environmental considerations—including clean water, sanitation, hazardous-waste management—can be important for achieving overall U.S. objectives during reconstruction and post-conflict operations, including both short- and long-term stability. If not properly addressed in planning or operations, environmental considerations can increase the costs of an operation and make it more difficult for the Army to sustain the mission. Yet, environmental considerations are not well incorporated into Army planning or operations in any phase of an operation. To address these shortcomings, the Army should take additional steps to ensure that environmental considerations (from strategic to tactical) are appropriately incorporated into planning, operations, training, and research.

At the time of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 the country had no system of environmental regulation or laws. Even today walking through some of the poorer neighborhoods of Baghdad, one sees trash strewn thick throughout the dirt streets where the smell at times can become unbearable. Adding to the country's lack of environmental awareness, the RAND report gave examples of the U.S. military actions which compounded the problem. The Military Times offered some highlights:

• A contractor hired by the Defense Department dumped waste oil in a landfill in Iraq and then sold the barrels.

• U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan buried several drums containing unidentified liquids, which later turned out to be hazardous, posing a risk of soil and groundwater contamination.

• In Iraq, an airfield sits over an old airfield with leaking fuel tanks. "Major health issues arise whenever it is necessary to dig."

• Commanders in Iraq have set up hazardous-waste disposal areas close to camp perimeters, creating a force-protection issue since they were potential targets for hand grenades and IEDs.

• High-grade diesel fuel was spilled in a lake in Iraq that was used for drinking water at a base. The lake is no longer used as a source of drinking water.

• U.S. forces in Iraq improperly dumped insecticides, batteries, oil products and other hazardous material. Soldiers joked that fuel spills were "replenishing the oil wells."

• Troops in Iraq fell ill after rolling leaking drums of industrial-strength pesticides out of a building.

The Military Times further reported that according to the U.S. Army Engineer School there is an estimated 11 million pounds of hazardous waste in Iraq. Lt. Col. Garth Anderson, commander of the 733rd Facility Engineer Detachment, told the paper that environmental problems can adversely affect U.S. soldiers trying to accomplish their tactical missions, but added this is something rarely foremost in their minds:

"It's a pretty significant problem," he said. "I think most soldiers are more concerned about the mission … and may not be as concerned about the environment. But it's not just [a] … tree-hugger thing."

The RAND report offers further examples of the relationship between environment and military missions:

Force-protection risks can also be increased by environmental issues, as illustrated in a case from Iraq. Because of the hostile environment there, commanders set up their own hazardous-waste accumulation points inside their base camps. These field-expedient satellite accumulation points were located too close to camp perimeters, creating potential targets for hand grenades and improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

Environmental issues can affect the military mission in yet another way. Poor U.S. environmental practices in host nations in the region that support U.S. forces can cause diplomatic problems that affect operations. In OIF, a contractor in a host nation dumped waste anti-freeze from a U.S. base camp and sold the drums. This incident caused a major diplomatic problem that is still being negotiated. Although it has not reached the level where it is affecting operations in this case, host nations have restricted U.S. activities in several non-contingency operations in other parts of the world because of environmental concerns. For example, restrictions were imposed on Army training in Germany, and an Army training range was closed in Okinawa.

Finally, military operations can be affected by the ability of the logistical systems to support them. If base camps and military equipment have large requirements for resources, the logistics system must supply them for military operations to continue. By taking steps such as developing local water sources and reusing engine oil to reduce logistical needs, the Army can reduce the logistical burdens of an operation, either by providing more logistics capacity for warfighting or by reducing the size of the logistical tail needed for an operation.

Among the report's recommendations for military leaders are to cultivate an "environmental ethic" throughout the Army; to better incorporate environmental considerations into strategic planning; and to train soldiers about environmental issues that could arise in the field before they deploy.